The Schoolyard Bully: A Menace to Public Health?

by Drew Heyding on March 22, 2012

Bullying came up as a topic on the radio the other day as I drove to daycare. A new documentary is coming out called Bully. The subject is unsettling for a relatively new parent like me. I’ve had glimpses into the potential future when I catch sight of my daughter getting pushed over by one of the other kids in the playground or at daycare.  (Not that she is innocent herself when it comes to pushing and shoving as my son would point out if he were old enough to talk).

Bullying is a topic that certainly weighs on the minds of a lot of parents. But is it a public health issue? When it comes to public health, I usually think of infectious disease problems first – like monitoring flu cases or investigating outbreaks of food poisoning. After that I think of chronic disease surveillance – like tracking cancer and obesity rates. I was surprised to learn that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) collects data on bullying as part of their work in the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.

The CDC fact sheet on bullying highlights the public health implications of this problem, describing the potential for “physical injury, social and emotional distress, and even death” that can result from bullying behavior.  Studies like this one from England have found higher rates of headaches, abdominal pain and sleep problems in kids who were bullied. A new study from the Canadian Journal of Public Health explored the relationship between bullying and another important health outcome – depression.

The study collected survey data on middle school students in a medium-sized Canadian city. The survey was based in part on prior work done by the World Health Organization. A total of 4,197 students completed that survey (nearly half of those eligible).

In this study group, almost 1 out of every 4 students reported being physically bullied at least once in the previous month. Nineteen percent of the students were physically bullied once or twice a month and 4% were bullied every week.

Males attending a school in a low-income neighborhood were more likely to have been bullied. Bullying was also more common in those students who said that there home life was unhappy and that they had a lot of arguments with their parents.

Those who were bullied many times per week were over 4 times more likely to be depressed than students who were never bullied. Depressed mood was more likely in those who were bullied even when other factors (like self-esteem, parental relationship and home life) were taken into account.

The study authors acknowledge that because the data is observational and collected at 1 point in time, it is not possible to prove a causal relationship between bullying an depression. It could be that depressed students are more likely to be bullied and not that bullying leads to more depression.

Even though the data is cross-sectional (obtained by observation at a single point in time), the results show a dose-dependent relationship between bullying and depression, which provides some support for concluding that the relationship is causal. Dose-dependent means that as the amount of bullying increased so did the rates of depression (8.1% of those never bullied were depressed, 16% of those bullied once or twice a month, 26% of those bullied weekly, and 37.3% of those bullied multiple times per week).

This study adds support to the perspective that views bullying as a public health issue and helps to define the extent of the problem and the consequences. The next steps in a public health response are to develop and test prevention strategies.

The CDC fact sheet notes that “research on preventing and addressing bullying is still developing”. Some results are available and have shown, for instance, that comprehensive “whole school” interventions that involve multiple disciplines and encompass the entire school community are more effecitve than small scale curriculum based interventions. More studies are needed. Efforts to fill this gap are moving forward and public health officials will continue to contribute.

Gaythia Weis March 22, 2012 at 12:09 pm

I support a whole school approach. I think that sometimes, the problem starts with school administrators, who themselves may impose a rigid, top down, structure, in which the teachers themselves may feel bullied. Child bullies may themselves be victims of bullying themselves. I think that the answers lie in fostering open and cooperative structures in which issues and problems can be freely discussed and resolved.

Viewing this as an overall matter of school community public health might be a good, non judgmental way of addressing the circumstances that lead to bullying.

Rosa M. March 22, 2012 at 12:31 pm

This is really one hard topic to tackle. Because a lot of that bullying happens in the low when teachers and school employees cant really notice. As someone who was somehow bullied when I was a kid, I can attest to how hard it feels at the time, though in retrospective it made me stronger, I can say that a lot of time it goes the other way. And not only with other kids, one of the bullying kids in my school hit teachers in numerous occasions. I think eradicating bullying completely is near impossible, since kids need to learn to control the behavior through the years, but it is also true that teachers and parents don’t punish these behaviors enough when they happen and it should definitively be a top priority of school administrators.

Kristy E. March 22, 2012 at 5:42 pm

I’m happy that the issue of bullying has made a larger appearance in the media recently and that as you noted, research on preventing and addressing it is developing. This is such a significant issue, especially because the rise of social media supplies kids with even more channels for bullying. I am not surprised at all to learn of the physical effects that you described as potential results of bullying. Hopefully the next public health response steps you mentioned will include developing adequate prevention strategies soon! Thanks for educating us on such an important issue!

Angela March 23, 2012 at 10:17 pm

Thanks for the post! Difficult topic, indeed, as bullying seems to occur at just about any level of human interaction (child/adult, individual/state). I was quite lucky during primary school, which was in the poorest part of town. I remember it both as really brutal, but also as a kind of revelation. We had one teacher who had a very keen sense for what made a particular kid a bully, so she often managed to redirect the negative energy towards a good end. E.g. a lot of the tension resulted from different kids learning at different paces, with some ending up bored (=frustrated) and others challenged (=frustrated), so she basically made the bored kids help with teaching the struggling ones. Sometimes, ‘struggling’ was also the result of a language issue, so the bored kids were sometimes shown how it feels to struggle with another language: the kids they were helping taught them a bit of their language/alphabet. Obviously, this kind of redirection does not work for everyone and every situation (e.g. home problems) – and also, these relations can be experienced as patronising etc, but I thought the approach was pretty clever. Didn’t protect us from the older kids in the high school across the street, though.

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